Many urban Japanese regard the harsh, mountainous provinces of NORTHERN HONSHU as irredeemably backward. Not that it's all thatched farmhouses and timeless agricultural vistas, but certainly rural traditions have survived here longer than in most other parts of the country. However, it doesn't take long to discover the region's huge array of festivals; nor do you have to delve much deeper to find the rich heritage of folk tales and evidence of ancient religious practices that give parts of northern Honshu a deliciously mysterious tang. The northern portion of the main island of Honshu is called the Tohoku region. The weather is always refreshingly cool in the highlands with summer temperatures some 10 degrees C cooler than in the southwest.
Rustic hot springs are everywhere in Tohoku and lure large numbers of "onsen" lovers from throughout Japan. All these hot springs are known for their medicinal values and, as such, have served as hot-spring cure places since times of old.
The gateway to the Pacific Coast area is Sendai, 2 hrs. by Shinkansen super express from Tokyo. Sendai serves as a base for trips to Matsushima, which can be reached in 40 min. by rail. Matsushima is reputed to be one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. The scenic bay is dotted with hundreds of islets. A tour around the bay on a pleasure boat is recommended.
Hiraizumi, a 1 hr. 30-min. train ride from Sendai, was originally modeled on Kyoto and is the site of the noted Chusonji Temple built in 1109. The temple's Konjikido, or Golden Hall, houses 11 images of Buddha, and was originally coated with black-lacquer and gold plate.
Aomori, 2.5 hrs. by limited express or Hachinohe, 30 min by Shinkansen from Morioka is a starting point for trips to Lake Towada and the Oirase Valley, the core of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. Lake Towada, in the centre of the park, is one of the most picturesque lakes in Japan. At its eastern shore, the Oirase Valley stretches for 14 km. A promenade, meandering along the gorge fringed by dense woods, provides refreshing views of the crystal-clear stream as well as waterfalls, large and small.
A must-see in the city of Aomori is the ancient ruins of Sannai-Maruyama, a 30-min. bus trip from central Aomori. Dating back about 4,000 to 5,500 years, it is one of Japan's largest-scale ruins of Jomon-period communities. Unearthed articles and reproductions of ancient dwellings are open to the public. The city's Nebuta Festival, held in August, is famous as a festival representative of the country as a whole and attracts throngs of revellers from all over.
Hirosaki is 30 min. by limited express from Aomori. In early May every year, Hirosaki Castle grounds and surrounding areas come alive with cherry blossoms in full bloom on some 5,000 cherry trees.
The Shirakami-Sanchi Mountains, extending over the prefectural borders between Aomori and Akita, is a vast woodland of primeval beech forest, thus retaining an untouched part of the world of nature. "Mini Shirakami" hiking course is found nearby.
The city of Akita, 1 hr. 40 min. from Morioka by Akita Shinkansen, is home to the Kanto Festival in August, another great summer festival in the Tohoku region.
Kakunodate, 45 minutes from Akita by Shinkansen, is a historic town dotted with samurai residences and storehouses. The samurai residences now serve as museums and restaurants, allowing visitors to experience old-style Japan.
Yamagata Prefecture, about three hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen, offers visitors onsen and winter skiing in the Zao mountain range. The Zao "Okama" (cauldron) is a mystical caldera lake brimming with emerald water. Don't miss it.
Aizu Wakamatsu, the castle town of Tsuruga Castle, is around 2 hrs. 30 min. from Tokyo by Shinkansen and JR limited express. Nearby Mt. Bandai and Lake Inawashiro are famous winter ski resorts.